22 April 2021 – The success of virtual conferences during the COVID-19 pandemic has taken many by surprise. There is a resounding appreciation amongst the scientific community that full programmes of talks, Q&As, poster sessions and networking events were successfully turned into virtual formats. But while some praise the accessibility, affordability, and sustainability of online events, others say they miss the personal connections, immersive conversations, and serendipitous networking of in-person meetings. Conference organizers and funders will face a post-pandemic challenge: how to unite the best of both worlds.
Virtual conferences: inclusive, affordable, sustainable
Virtual conferences make it possible to beam content directly into people’s homes and offices, wherever they are in the world. Some organizers are reporting higher attendances, as well as audiences that are more diverse and international. It is argued virtual events can be more inclusive, especially of those who might not have the chance to travel because of disabilities, family responsibilities, work commitments, or financial or visa constraints. Some organizers say they have found it easier to get high-profile speakers on programmes, while younger attendees may be emboldened to participate in discussion sessions. Virtual conferences could lead to more open, democratised meetings, with on-demand content and discussion forums accessible to wider communities long after plenary sessions have ended. With no travel or hotel costs, personal and group budgets can stretch further, benefitting younger participants in particular. Virtual conferences also substantially reduce the carbon footprint of meetings, reducing travel-related emissions.
In-person conferences: immersive, great networking, revitalising
With conference programmes uniting work and social activities, in-person events drive the kinds of serendipitous encounters conducive to creating collaborations, building communities, and establishing friendships. Aspects that organizers and participants appear to have missed most during the pandemic include the conference atmosphere, extensive feedback opportunities, and in-depth conversations during coffee breaks, poster sessions, and post-plenary catch-ups. Travel to events is worth the investment, many say, providing an energising change of scenery, new inspiration for projects, minds that are fully immersed in the conference, and an invigorating mixing of minds and cultures. Some also report that the in-person conference experience minimises distractions from work and home life, eliminates screen fatigue, and allows attendees to make lasting connections. Event organisers and funders have a lot of food for thought: should conferences return solely in-person after the pandemic? Could hybrid events take place, where participants can choose the format that they attend? Might we see ‘hub and spoke’ approaches, connecting regional events internationally? Or should science events stay online entirely? As one meeting organizer said in a recent interview for EMBO, “almost anything is on the table”.